As the new year approaches, here's a resolution we should make as individuals and as a society: Let's hold off retirement until we really need it.
When Social Security came into being three score and 10 years ago, life expectancy was lower, the physical expectations of most jobs higher, and the wear and tear on most individuals greater.
A Social Security stipend for those who made it to 65 was a present and sometimes a lifesaver for those worn out by factory work. Today, though, with improved health-care, most people make it to 65 (or 66, scheduled to be the vesting age for most baby boomers) fit as only a slightly dented fiddle.
If we take into account that change in reality, we don't have only the two choices that The Wall Street Journal offered on Dec. 10: higher Social Security taxes now, or massive borrowing to cover the costs. We have an alternative to pay-me-now or have-the-descendants-pay-more-later, and it's called: Work more now.
Why not quickly jump the typical age for beginning to draw Social Security to 70, with charitable exceptions for those who need immediate help?
And regardless of what happens in public policy, how about having Christians show the way personally? Let me offer two examples of non-retiring Christians, one known internationally, one only in a small area, both appreciated for their persevering service.
Tetsunao (Ted) Yamamori, born in 1937 in Nagoya, Japan, almost starved to death at the end of World War II. He became a Christian at age 19 and then a professor of sociology and intercultural studies. In the summer of 1980, when he took 57 Biola University nursing majors to Thailand to work in a refugee camp, he "started seeing my own face in the faces of dying children. I had taught for 18 years but after that I couldn't focus on teaching."
Ted in 1981 became the head of Food for the Hungry, a fine relief and development organization. Over the next 20 years he grew the organization enormously until he "retired" in 2001. Since then he has written two books on China and co-authored or edited three more. He consults widely and will be a guest professor at three seminaries or universities in 2005 and 2006. He says, "There is no retirement for a Christian worker."
A second exemplary worker, Bea Crow, was Food Service Director at Alpine Camp in Mentone, Ala., for 69 years, starting when she was 17. When the current owner, Dick O'Farrell, purchased the camp in 1958 and turned it into Alpine Camp for Boys, he asked Mrs. Crow to stay on, and she did. When her husband died in 1976, she stayed on. When she turned 65 and then 70 during the 1980s, she stayed on. When she became an octogenarian, she stayed on.
As Mr. O'Farrell recalls, "Her pie crusts, small biscuits, and yeast rolls are legendary with children and adults across America who grew up at Alpine Camp." He says that Mrs. Crow taught him and others "the meaning of the word integrity . . . doing what you said you would do."
When a doctor decreed a year ago that at age 86 Mrs. Crow could no longer face the stress of feeding 350 hungry people three times a day, she reluctantly left the camp kitchen, but to show that the doctor was wrong she went out and planted the largest vegetable garden in the county.
"There is no retirement for a Christian worker" does not mean that a Christian has to stay in the same job, particularly if God's providence and man's frugality create a condition of financial independence.
But we should remember that while the Genesis 3 tragedy made working conditions much harder than they would otherwise have been, the opportunity for productive labor is a blessing from God, who commands us to labor on six-sevenths of the days.
Too many people who retire feel useless. Some exacerbate the problem by deliberately moving far away from children and grandchildren into elderly-only apartments and condominiums. Christians should lead the way by fighting against the temptation we all have, and maybe especially as we age, to close in upon ourselves. Maybe the rest of the country will then follow, and Social Security will focus on those who really need it.